After the sensational release of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho in 1960, some minor but telling cuts were made for the TV transmission and this became the standard text for home entertainment and cinema rereleases from that moment on. Alongside the film’s growing legendary status were rumours about what Hitchcock had had to cut in the first place to get it past the censors, and the perhaps apocryphal story about how those censors swore they had glimpsed one of Janet Leigh’s breasts in the shower scene. Cunning Hitchcock was supposed to have solemnly promised to take it away and cut it – then after a plausible interval, resubmitted it uncut – and the censors pronounced themselves satisfied.
Bien, the recent 60th anniversary home entertainment Blu-ray of Psycho offered the uncut and cut versions of 1960 as parallel texts, and we are now able to inspect the former on the big screen, in a newly restored cinema print. It turns out it wasn’t simply a case of footage being trimmed: there is an alternate shot that subtly tilts the audience’s reaction. En papel, the restored moments do not appear to amount to much. There is a new shot in the pre-shower undressing scene after we see the peeping-tom eye in profile: Janet Leigh is removing her bra and for a moment it does look as if the audience are going to see her breasts. (Por supuesto, they don’t.) Después, there is a lingering shot of bloody hands and a different, darker shot of the assailant’s grimly frowning face. Luego, when the private detective Arbogast is killed, we see more grisly stabs of the knife.
Do these few seconds change the movie? Not radically. But it shows with what a fine art these representations of sexual transgression and violent assault were calibrated, with what care Hitchcock thought about timings, especially considering his original stipulation that no one was allowed into the theatre after the film had started. It was not simply a publicity stunt: for the shower sequence, Hitchcock had calculated that for all that Psycho as a whole appeared to trade on explicitness, the shocking images were glimpsed fleetingly and almost subliminally. The flashes of flesh, the flashes of the knife … the camera does not linger on them. So to add more shots of this kind, more stabs, a longer moment of intrusion as Leigh slips her bra strap over her shoulder, is to turn up the dial fractionally on the mood and what people in the auditorium remember or think they remember.
The tipping point, the point at which the shock coagulates into nausea, is not easy to gauge, and of course there is also the tipping point of censorship: just how much can be offered up to the authorities in exchange for being allowed to show it in the first place? Assessing the difference is as good an excuse as any to sit down to Psycho again.